Good vs. Right

The Moral Basis to Oppose Current Pandemic Policies

David Solway
December 19, 2021
Is each human being a unique individual of incalculable intrinsic worth, to be valued and respected in all circumstances? Or an interchangeable object to be managed, manipulated and used? And what might this have to do with Covid-19? Quite a lot, in fact. The pro-restrictions/pro-mask/pro-vaccine side has wrapped itself not only in the lab-coat of science but also, implicitly, in the robe of morality. Opponents aren’t just misinformed, misguided or even irrational, they’re bad. But is this really the case? David Solway examines the ethical concepts underlying – and, whether people realize it or not, shaping – the two main contesting viewpoints towards pandemic management.
Good vs. Right

The Moral Basis to Oppose Current Pandemic Policies

David Solway
December 19, 2021
Is each human being a unique individual of incalculable intrinsic worth, to be valued and respected in all circumstances? Or an interchangeable object to be managed, manipulated and used? And what might this have to do with Covid-19? Quite a lot, in fact. The pro-restrictions/pro-mask/pro-vaccine side has wrapped itself not only in the lab-coat of science but also, implicitly, in the robe of morality. Opponents aren’t just misinformed, misguided or even irrational, they’re bad. But is this really the case? David Solway examines the ethical concepts underlying – and, whether people realize it or not, shaping – the two main contesting viewpoints towards pandemic management.
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When dissent is crushed, access to knowledge suppressed and freedom of movement curtailed, civil cohesion is shattered and regulated orthodoxy becomes the rule of the day.As S. Adam Seagrave writes in American Mind, “The Covid-Era ‘new normal’ is not just about medical mitigation, it is about a new form of political governance.” Constitutional norms in our own country as well as Seagrave’s have been abrogated in favor of a Schwarzeneggerian “screw your freedom” ethos. (Yes, the California Terminator did say that, and a lot more.) Or as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sneered, only slightly less inelegantly: “Don’t think you can get on a plane or a train next to vaccinated people.” He made good on that election promise. Orders come down, we obey. If we don’t, the penalties are crippling. The effect of all this is plain to see and hard to deny; whether that was its purpose all along is the question.

“Screw your freedom!” Former California governor and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s (left) recent inelegant eruption crystallizes the unfolding agenda of the Covid-19 era which, predicts constitutional democracy professor S. Adam Seagrave (right), is ultimately about imposing a new form of political governance. (Source of left photo: Gage Skidmore, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)

How did we even get here? The political and medical imbroglio we are experiencing contains a core dilemma that may be phrased in the terminology of moral theory. Applying the tools of philosophy to evaluate the ebb and flow of an era that has been framed as being about “science” might seem odd. But rolling out the policies and measures aimed at battling a global pandemic required a series of moral decisions – even if the decision-makers were largely oblivious to them. More broadly, every individual’s overall orientation towards government and public health policy reflects a general position regarding moral theory. This holds even if that person never thinks explicitly about “morality,” much less moral theory, let alone being aware of the discipline’s key ideas and terms. They are no less at play.

The consensual position regarding the official response to the pandemic and now to the vaccines is known in moral theory as “consequentialist.” That is, the moral validity of an action should be judged exclusively by what it brings about, i.e., its consequences. Consequentialists thus tend to believe in advancing the general “Good,” usually above all else. Policies and measures believed to do so are to be accepted (and often praised). Advancing the general Good may well demand sacrifices of everyone, including those who disagree. Even the innocent may be required to suffer if the urgency is acute and the reward for the many sufficiently great.

Consequentialism, a term coined by Elizabeth Anscombe in her 1957 classic Intention, is akin to the more popularly known utilitarianism, with the proviso that consequentialism contains an element of probability demanding constant re-evaluation as a prelude to further decisions. For our purposes the distinction is, so to speak, inconsequential. It is not hard to see how a consequentialist mindset could migrate from the entirely reasonable position of “We’re in a pandemic; let’s do all we can to develop a vaccine,” to “They’re here! Let’s get jabbing!” via a few more steps to “It’s going too slow! Deny jobs and health care to all who decline!”

Those who reject the consensual argument are deontologists. Deontology holds that decisions must conform to a moral norm and that, regardless of consequences, some choices are morally forbidden. The moral norm is usually the duty or obligation to confess the absolute value of the individual soul. A deontological mindset – again, whether or not the person is aware of the term – will rebel against many of the chosen pandemic policies. It will especially hold to the belief that decisions regarding a person’s health or life are that person’s alone. Individual autonomy in this regard cannot be violated even ifthis complicates the implementation of pandemic policies and might entail a cost to society. Thus, nobody may be vaccinated against their will.

Can there be morality in an era ruled by “science”? Whether people and governments realized it or not, developing and implementing policies to grapple with the pandemic required decisions driven by competing moral theories. This becomes clear once a person understands the basic ethical orientations of consequentialism and deontology. (Source of all images except top-left: Shutterstock)

The disaccord between the two postures – consequentialism and deontology – is often characterized as a conflict between the public and the person, the collective and the individual, or in the lexicon of philosophy, between the “Good” and the “Right.” While these two terms are used interchangeably by most people in day-to-day discourse, they have a decidedly different meaning. “The Good” is a hypothesis, and that is the problem; what seems good may not turn out to be so. Consequences can never be adequately weighed, as has been amply demonstrated throughout the pandemic, with I’m sure far more to come.

“Right,” on the other hand, is often conflated with assumptions of Divine or Natural law, equally subject to interpretation. The important difference is that, from a practical vantage, “Right” rather than “Good” is a term embedded in democratic national constitutions. These uphold the rights, however contested, of the sovereign individual who can make his or her own choices, even in defiance of state authority, especially with regard to bodily autonomy.

Constitutionalism is political deontology; it demands the hard training in self-reliance, independent thought and individual responsibility understood as a moral obligationto preserve the irreplaceable spirit of the singular human being. This is why political tyranny, medical groupthink and mob rule must be opposed; the rights of the individual are inalienable. In the current situation regarding Covid-19 policy in general and mandatory vaccination in particular, the skeptics/dissidents are constitutionalists – deontologists – and are in “the right” – the moral right, and generally on the political right as well.

Not fooled: British novelist and theologian C.S. Lewis (left) observed that, “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.” His American contemporary, journalist and cultural critic H.L. Mencken (right), added that, “The urge to save humanity is almost always a false-face for the urge to rule it.”

Consequentialism leads to government by mandate, edict, proclamation and executive order. It is anti-constitutional. I fear it will lead ultimately to a police state, to government by force. We already live under the sway of a consequentialist government which argues for the “common good” at the expense of individual rights. Some officials responsible for formulating policy may actually believe they are advancing the public welfare, though as C.S. Lewis observed in The Abolition of Man, “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive,” since it is driven by busybody conscience. Most policy makers, however, are surely cynical in their endeavours. As H.L. Mencken noted, “The urge to save humanity is almost always a false-face for the urge to rule it.”

Moreover, the maxim of the “common good” can be extended indefinitely to apply to any new development regarded as a crisis and managed by a government that subordinates morality to “efficiency,” that paves the way for a queue of mandatory procedures in the future, and regards the very concept of the “individual” as an impediment to its purposes. A telling example of this is British Columbia’s recent decision to remorselessly crush a tiny and nearly friendless (but harmless and self-supporting) niche within its agricultural sector, using pandemic “science” and the “greater good” as cover, as described in this C2C article.

It is therefore incumbent upon us to confront the spectacle of an evaporating democracy and to stop it in its tracks. Tinkering with legal pronouncements or merely voicing objections will not alter the social and political destination envisaged by determined consequentialists. As Nazi-era pastor and freedom martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer remarked, “If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction.” Deontology requires derailing, or disembarking, Bonhoeffer’s train. The means will need to include mass demonstrations, strikes and walkouts, or the refusal to purchase a ticket, that is, the refusal to buy into the reigning ideology, the refusal to consent.

Catching on in Italy: 7,000 Milanese recently protested their country’s “Green Pass,” where Robert F. Kennedy proclaimed the need to defend individual freedom – unto death if necessary – warning that Covid-era measures are the pathway for governments “to control every aspect, every feature of our lives.” (Source of images: AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

While nothing of this sort is happening on a large scale in Canada, substantial segments of the population in other countries appear to have caught on. Last month at least 7,000 Milanese turned out to protest their country’s “Green Pass” vaccination enforcement program (which in some respects is milder than policy in Canada). Robert F. Kennedy Jr. spoke forcefully and movingly about the need to defend freedom – up to and including with his own life if need be. “They are taking [our] rights and they will never give them back unless we make them,” he declared. “The Green Pass is how they consolidate their power over your lives.”

Kennedy (nephew of the former U.S. president and himself a former darling of leftists who, admittedly, caused considerable mischief in Canada’s natural resource sector) views Covid-19 policy as the part of a broader agenda “that gives these totalitarian elements the capacity to control every aspect, every feature of our lives.” Meanwhile in Australia, there have been innumerable protests collectively involving hundreds of thousands of people, with thousands of arrests, police behaving violently – and people being thrown into remote prison camps, in some cases merely for having had contact with someone who tested positive for Covid-19.

…And in Australia. Hundreds of thousands of Aussies have protested their country’s draconian Covid restrictions, facing ruthless and at times violent police crackdowns, and even internment camps where people have been forcibly confined merely for having been in contact with a positive case. (Sources: (top left) Macleay Argus, (top right) Sydney Low/ZUMA Press Wire, (middle left) BBC news, (middle right) Shutterstock, (bottom left and right) YouTube)

Although our society still clearly has the form of democracy, the behaviour of governments and the supporting elites increasingly reflects what Umberto Eco in How to Spot a Fascist calls “Ur-Fascism” – the motivating beliefs of the fascist mindset. Among these is the belief that “individuals have no rights, and the ‘people’ is conceived as a monolithic entity that expresses the ‘common will’…The people is thus merely a theatrical pretence.” The phenomenon may just as aptly be called Ur-Socialism, for in either case “citizens have a political impact only from a quantitative point of view,” as claimed by a political leader, the ruling party or the State. The hidden truth is that “no quantity of human beings can possess a common will” (because individuals are unique) and that pretending they do means that individual citizens “have lost their power to delegate.”

The crux of the issue is moral, “deontological,” that is, “the knowledge of what is (morally) binding.” One may view the democratic or republican political order as, ideally, an expression of a precedent moral sanction, which values the individual soul as a reflection of something higher than a mere fungible social unit. In other words, the democratic principle flows from the prior moral commitment to respect and defend the conscience, productive activity and bodily integrity of the individual person.

Not always jack-booted stormtroopers: Italian philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco’s detailed description of the basic fascistic impulse disturbingly foreshadows Covid-era trends throughout the democratic world. Claiming to advance the common good, often using the “theatrical pretense” of a “common will,” governments subjugate the individual, eroding democracy.

But true democracy is a deontological rarity. Tyranny, repression and various forms of Statism with no interest in the doctrine of right but every interest in the spoils of privilegeare the staple of human history. However common they might be, these dispensations are fundamentally immoral, a violation of the incommensurable value of the individual soul before God and man.

The deontology principle was famously described by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant as a “categorical imperative” or unconditional demand. It prohibits using a person as a means – in this case to an exclusively political objective – rather than as an end in himself. The “end” or goal of the so-called “administrative” state common in our era, however, is commutative rather than person-oriented, envisaging the individual as an interchangeable subject rather than as a unique citizen.

As noted, the “common good” is a blanket term that can mean anything the political authority wishes it to mean in its pursuit of absolute power. A regime of this nature is, from the standpoint of moral law, delinquent in its primary duty to safeguard and nurture the sanctity of the individual person. It does not regard liberty as a sufficient moral end – or really, any moral end at all. It has no interest in the individual good, which is enshrined in the constitutional definition of the citizen’s rights. Eventually, individual liberty is seen as the enemy of the common good.

The deadly trap for well-meaning constructivists – the frightened soccer mom, say, rather than the jackbooted stormtrooper – is that in discarding the Right to pursue the Good they end up with neither. For when the principle of deontology is set aside as irrelevant or obstructive, as it has been under the Covid-19 dispensation, the ground on which liberal democracy rests is cut away from under it, and constitutions become dead letters.As President John F. Kennedy said in his June 11, 1963 television address, “The rights of every [person] are diminished when the rights of one [person] are threatened.” Kennedy went on to say that, “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.”

“I was dismissed for doing exactly what I had been hired to do,” namely questioning the ethics behind her university’s immunization directive, says Julie Ponesse, until recently a professor of ethics and ancient philosophy at Huron University College. As former U.S. President John F. Kennedy warned in 1963, “The rights of every [person] are diminished when the rights of one [person] are threatened.”

This has seldom been truer than in the epoch of Covid-19 consequentialism, when individual conscience and agency are being subordinated to the State and its ideology. As Julie Ponesse, a professor of ethics and ancient philosophy at Huron University College in London, Ontario, stated at a recent conference: “Ethics are the bedrock beneath our democracy.” This otherwise unremarkable statement is given poignancy by Ponesse’s personal case: in September she was terminated “with cause” and banned from her campus for refusing the institution’s vaccine mandate. As she put it: “I was dismissed for doing exactly what I had been hired to do. I was a professor of ethics questioning what I take to be an unethical demand.” The broader question, Ponesse added, is “Whether individual autonomy can be downgraded to a conditional privilege or whether it remains a right.”

A “good” political order, that is, one that respects the dignity of the person, is both a reflection and an embodiment of a prior moral law. “Good” is adjectival; “Right” is substantive. In other words, in the political realm, “Good” is properly founded on “Right” and qualifies it as beneficial.

In this respect, the Declaration of Independence is a deontological document, holding “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”Similarly, the preamble to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states: “Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law,” establishing in Section 7 “the right to life, liberty and security of the person,” and in Section 15 that, “Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and benefit of the law without discrimination…” (Emphasis added.)

We can then say, in the everyday acceptation of the words, that the freedom of the individual is both right and good, that authoritarian decrees annul and vacate the person in their very essence, and that the consequentialist override of deontological virtue, as is evident in our current condition of mandatory Covid-19 politics, is a preparation for autocratic rule, one stage in the consequentialist war against the individual. Other stages are coming.

David Solway’s most recent volume of poetry, The Herb Garden, appeared in 2018 with Guernica Editions. His manifesto, Reflections on Music, Poetry & Politics, was released by Shomron Press in 2016. He has produced two CDs of original songs: Blood Guitar and Other Tales (2014) and Partial to Cain (2019) on which he is accompanied by his pianist wife Janice Fiamengo. His latest book is Notes from a Derelict Culture, Black House Publishing, 2019, London.

Source of main image: Shutterstock.


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